March 26 is the birthday of early Assyriologist George Smith, born this day in 1840.
He would play an important role in the discovery of decisive evidence for the close relation between the world’s ancient myths and scriptures, in stark contrast to the prevailing paradigm which taught (and continues to teach) that the scriptures of the Bible are in a category unto themselves, set apart from the myths of all the other cultures of the world.
Decades before, in the 1840s and early 1850s, Austen Henry Layard (1817 – 1894) and Hormuzd Rassam (1826 – 1910) had discovered the site of the library of Ashurbanipal, last king of the Assyrian Empire, who had reigned from 668 BC to 627 BC. The library contained hundreds of thousands of fragmented clay tablets, inscribed with the cuneiform writing of ancient Mesopotamian civilization — undecipherable at the time of this discovery. At least a hundred thousand fragments were sent back to England, where they would be housed in the British Museum.
Over the next decade, a team of scholars would unlock the mystery of the cuneiform writing system, and begin the painstaking process of translating some of the tablets from the library.
Into this quest to rediscover the literature and culture of ancient Mesopotamia entered George Smith, in his early twenties. In his 2006 account The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh, Professor David Damrosch of Harvard University writes:
George Smith’s parents had no such academic illusions for their son, who was born in 1840 in the London district of Chelsea, at that time a seedy area of grimy tenements and high unemployment. They belonged to London’s large, anonymous pool of unskilled labor — even after George became famous, no one ever bothered to record his parent’s occupations, or even their names. When George turned fourteen, his father took the sensible route of apprenticing the boy to a skilled trade. Apparently George’s literary and artistic interests were already becoming evident, and so his father did the best he could, articling his son to the printing firm of Messrs. Bradbury and Evans, where he was put to work learning to engrave banknotes. 14
As Professor Damrosch explains, this apprenticeship not only provided young George Smith with sills that “would later serve him well in his work with cuneiform tablets” (14), but the location of his employment was fortuitous in that it was roughly a mile away from the museum at Great Russell Street:
It was natural for Bradbury and Evans to have located their printing firm just off Fleet Street, the center of the London newspaper industry, and this location made all the difference in Smith’s life. If Bradbury and Evans had situated themselves another mile away from the museum, then Smith wouldn’t have had the time to get to it during business hours, and he never would have made the discoveries that led to his new career. 16 – 17.
As it was, at the age of twenty, George Smith “began to haunt the Near Eastern collections at the British Museum.” As Professor Damrosch goes on to explain, the nascent field of Assyriology was at that time in need of talent, providing “a rare chink in the armor of the British class structure” — one in which a brilliant mind such as that of George Smith could gain access without the usual need for credentials, introductions, or connections (16). And, as it turns out, George Smith was a true genius, who saved up his money to purchase all the books published by the early Assyriologists and pored over them late into the night. He would later reveal a unique talent not only for learning and then translating the cuneiform system, but also for reassembling the shattered tablets by fitting together fragments from the various tens of thousands of broken pieces that were assembled in the museum’s collection. He began spending his lunch hours in the museum on the three days of the week that the museum was open to the public, working on the ancient texts.
The abilities of the young banknote engraver were noticed by the Director of the Department of Antiquities, Samuel Birch (1813 – 1885), who eventually brought George Smith to the attention of Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810 – 1895) — one of the three men whose efforts over a period of nearly ten years had succeeded in unlocking the cuneiform system itself. Professor Damrosch explains that as he observed Smith’s volunteer work over the course of time, Rawlinson “was strongly impressed by his ability to piece tablets together, a task requiring an exceptional visual memory and manual dexterity in creating ‘joins’ of tablet fragments. A given tablet might have been broken into a dozen or more pieces, now widely dispersed among the hundred thousand fragments in the museum’s collection” (30).
Rawlinson persuaded the museum to hire George Smith, and in 1867 he left his “well-paid trade and regular employment” as an engraver, as E. A. Wallis Budge would later write in Rise & Progress of Assyriology, “to follow his literary bent” — which the partners of the banknote printing firm considered “an act of pure folly” (107). Had he remained at his previous occupation, Budge notes, Smith “would undoubtedly have become one of the master-engravers of the nineteenth century.”
As it was, however, George Smith would leave a different mark on history. One day in November of 1872, five years into his employment at the British Museum and at the age of 32 years old, George Smith was reading a tablet and he came across a passage describing a great Flood, and a boat resting on a mountain, and the sending out of birds to search for land! As Wallis Budge describes the scene,
Smith took the tablet and began to read over the lines which Ready had brought to light [Robert Ready, a former tobbaconist, had developed secret proprietary methods for removing mineral deposits from the tablets and otherwise cleaning the surfaces so that parts of the ancient text which were obscured could be read again after thousands of years of neglect]; and when he saw that they contained the portion of the legend he had hoped to find there, he said, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion.” Setting the tablet on the table, he jumped up and rushed about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, began to undress himself! 153
The impact of this discovery was enormous, as Smith’s astonishing reaction would indicate. He had just read an account with close parallels to the description of the Flood in Genesis, from a tablet written many centuries before the accepted date of the composition of the Pentateuch, and from a different culture which worshiped gods and goddesses such as Marduk and Enki and Ishtar.
Smith’s paper describing the text of this “Deluge Tablet” (now known to be Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh cycle) was presented by Smith on December 3rd, 1872 before the Society of Biblical Archaeology, “and his discovery made a profound impression upon his hearers,” as Wallis Budge writes on page 113 of Rise & Progress of Assyriology. Several politicians, scholars, and theologians were present.
The implications of these parallels between the mythology of ancient Mesopotamia and the events and characters described in the Bible are profound. In many ways, they shatter the conventions and historical paradigms which frame our present-day understanding of ancient myth and history every bit as much as they rocked the foundations of the paradigm that was dominant in 1872. In many ways, we have yet to come to grips with the implications of this discovery — implications so shattering that they caused George Smith to “rush about the room in a great state of excitement, and, to the astonishment of those present, begin to undress himself!”
The parallels between the myths of ancient Mesopotamia and the accounts in the Biblical scriptures are far-reaching and profound. But there are other parallels from other cultures which similarly reveal the undeniable truth that the events and figures found in the Bible belong to a world-wide system of myth and are by no means separate from the sacred traditions of other lands and even other continents.
For example, there are numerous parallels between the events of the Odyssey of ancient Greece and events described in the gospels of the (so-called) New Testament, despite the fact that the events described in the gospels are supposed to have taken place at least eight centuries after the likely date of composition of the Odyssey. There are equally many parallels to be found between the Norse myths and the characters and events described in the Biblical scriptures — some of which I explore in Star Myths of the World, Volume Four(Norse mythology).
The parallels go even deeper than the similar patterns between characters and events, because (as can now be demonstrated in detail, backed up by abundant and compelling evidence) these characters and events are based upon specific constellations which were imbued with distinctive characteristics and significance in an ancient system of celestial metaphor — an ancient system which was in use world-wide, from Mesopotamia and the Near East to the islands of the South Pacific; from the continents of Australia and Africa in the southern hemisphere to the farthest northern climes of Scandinavia; from ancient Egypt and ancient India to ancient China and even Japan.
Like the system of cuneiform, which was forgotten and unreadable for more than two thousand years, until it was rediscovered and deciphered during the nineteenth century, the world’s ancient myths are speaking to us in an unrecognized language of celestial metaphor — but this language can be deciphered. As we begin to do so, the astonishing message of the ancient myths can be heard once again, with life-changing and indeed civilization-changing impact.
George Smith left the mortal world under somewhat mysterious circumstances at the age of 36, in the year 1876. As Professor Damrosch notes, “all modern scholarship on Babylonian literature stems from his pathbreaking work” (77). It is difficult to read his story and not see him as being uniquely gifted to carry out the work that he did, at the right place and moment in time, with the right talents and abilities and passions. He was the first to find undeniable proof of the close parallels between the Biblical scriptures and the ancient Mesopotamian texts — Mesopotamian texts which may constitute the oldest surviving literary narratives known at this time.
The work of unlocking these parallels is not yet finished: indeed, it is only barely begun. My sense is that George Smith would want us to continue that effort.
Note: It should go without saying that just because this post describes the historic achievements of George Smith and others with regards to the translation of ancient Mesopotamian texts, such commemoration does not mean that I condone the nineteenth century British imperial project in Mesopotamia (or other imperialist projects in that or other regions before and since) or the shipment of antiquities out of their country of origin to other countries: the entire worldview which supported (and continues to support) such long-standing structures of colonialism and imperialism is itself often based in large part upon the very Biblical literalism and exceptionalism which Smith’s discovery above subverts and overturns.